Alena Smith’s Dickinson has always worn its heart on its sleeve, its heroine exuding the passion and verve long believed to have been absent from its eponymous subject’s life. Along with deft turns in tone and one of the best ensemble casts on TV, that earnestness is a key part of the anachronistic dramedy’s appeal. When Smith and her writers—which, in season three, include Ziwe—decide to do a time travel episode or personify Death (as Wiz Khalifa, no less) or draw a straight line from our country’s racist past to its racist present, they go for broke every time.
That creative audacity burns just as brightly in the third and final season, which premiered November 5 with three episodes. Dickinson isn’t concerned with bringing its story to a tidy conclusion or trying to lay the groundwork for spin-off ventures. This season, the series aims to honor the most prolific and artistically fecund period of Emily Dickinson’s life, which happened to be during the Civil War. As series lead Hailee Steinfeld muses in the opening moments of the premiere, “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers,” Dickinson wrote nearly a poem a day during this period. “Yet,” the voice-over ruefully notes, “due to her life of seclusion, Dickinson has not traditionally been considered a war poet. Most people do not think of Emily Dickinson as a voice with the power to speak for a nation.”
With that bit of narration, Dickinson throws down the gauntlet, eager to demonstrate how Dickinson’s work was informed by the Civil War and how her poetry reflected that time of great strife. Once again, the series weaves together fact and fancy, using Dickinson’s poems as the springboard for explorations of art and the social responsibility of creatives, as well as moments of great intimacy between Emily (Steinfeld) and her family members: father Edward (Toby Huss), mother Emily Norcross (Jane Krakowski), sister Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov), and brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe). “Emisue” ’shippers, fear not—Sue (Ella Hunt) still plays a major role in Emily’s life, both on the writing and home fronts.
Where season one saw Emily trying to find her voice and season two depicted her ambivalence towards fame, season three of Dickinson sees Emily trying to make the most of her gift. Every day, the men of Amherst are being drafted into the war or being laid to rest as a result of it. This weighs even on Death himself, a fact that surprises Emily, but also helps her see that “poetry can be powerful, even more powerful” than her companion in the carriage. Death tears people apart, Emily says, but “poetry can put them back together again.”
It’s a gratifying development, not least of which because the second season ended with Emily reconsidering being published. But a fuckboy like Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones) could only ever be a minor obstacle on Emily’s path to her destiny. She may seek out a new correspondent in Colonel T.W. Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), but this Emily doesn’t question what she has to contribute to art or the political discourse. She wants her poems to give people hope.
Steinfeld is reliably magnetic and radiates great confidence in these moments, but Dickinson knows that good intentions only get you so far. The series finds a rich new vein of conflict to tap in the actions of well-meaning people like Emily, Edward—who makes a wan plea for civility—and Higginson, the latter of whom heads up the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Union Army. That regiment was made up of formerly enslaved Black soldiers who worked to see that fight for freedom through to the end. It’s where Henry (Chinaza Uche) ends up after leaving Amherst in a bid to protect his wife Betty (Amanda Warren) and daughter Helen (Levi Arielle Ricks) from any fallout over the abolitionist newspaper he founded.
Here’s where a few of Dickinson’s many threads get ensnarled: In trying to make the case for Emily as a wartime poet, the show ties her story to Henry’s. But, however keenly this Emily may feel the national schism, or how adroitly the real Dickinson’s poems may have captured the rawness of that wound, Emily’s and Henry’s circumstances could not be more disparate. Whatever their shared artistic sensibilities or political beliefs, only one of them must head to war; only one of them is truly risking everything. The series tries to underscore a connection that’s much more tenuous here than it was in season two, when both Emily and Henry were wrestling with the need to be published.
This is one of the few instances this season where the show overplays its hand, but Dickinson easily makes up for it with trenchant commentary on the limits of allyship. Ebert’s performance is spot-on as a well-intentioned but ineffectual leader who just wants to be “down for the cause.” He readily tells Henry, “Solidarity is a verb, my brother,” then fails to act at almost every turn.
Cringe-inducing as these moments may be, the goal isn’t (strictly) to ridicule this particular type of ally, but to consider all the people who make up a social movement. It’s not just soldiers and politicians; Dickinson gives everyone a chance to speak up, though they’re not always in agreement with each other. Vinnie, Betty, and Emily Norcross show their support for Union troops by rolling bandages. Artists like Higginson, Louisa May Alcott (a returning Zosia Mamet), and Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner, sounding his own barbaric yawp) enlist or work as nurses. Even Vinnie’s circle of friends, once hopelessly self-involved, are drawn into the war effort in various ways.
One of the big questions of the season is how Emily will eventually “do her part.” Because Dickinson’s poems only offer so much insight, the answer is another stirring work of fiction. But the fact that it rings true for this Emily, whom the show’s depicted as the swirling eddy beneath the image of still waters history has associated with the real poet, is a great credit to Dickinson. Smith set out to reintroduce a towering figure in Western literature, albeit one whose genius wasn’t appreciated until many years after her death. At the center of all the show’s anachronisms and magical realism is a three-dimensional woman, one with flaws and passions to go with her boundless talent. It doesn’t matter how closely this portrayal aligns with the real Dickinson; what matters is that she too has moved audiences with her art.